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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Gold Cup Wrong

Lord WindermereLord Windermere
© Photo Healy Racing

Stewards panels, no matter what jurisdiction they’re in, are hardly renowned for backbone but rarely has it been more blatantly illustrated than in the craven spinelessness the Cheltenham stewards showed in allowing Lord Windermere hang on to the Gold Cup. There was a straight-forward job to be done. They ducked it.

It’s a sad reality that agendas are automatically looked for when opinions are expressed, no matter how straight-forward, so, for the record, I had no bet on the race, and have no connection with anyone involved. You’d want to be stony-hearted not to feel happy for Jim Culloty, Davy Russell and everyone involved with Lord Windermere.

But he should have been thrown out. If it had been a handicap hurdle at Kelso or Kilbeggan, he would have been. The enquiry would have taken less than five minutes, On His Own would have been promoted, and nothing would have been said.

In theory it shouldn’t matter what the circumstances are; the rules should still apply. Except of course the circumstances do matter. On the biggest stage of all the Cheltenham stewards abdicated their responsibility, including to punters, and funked making a hard but necessary call.

That they have got away with it, through the decision of Graham Wylie and Willie Mullins not to appeal, doesn’t disguise how everyone in the On His Own camp, including those who backed him, have been wronged.

A lot has been made about the perennial get-out clause about the first past the post getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s a fundamental flaw in the system. It has been for a long time. Yet nothing changes.

Since a straight-line is always the quickest way to get from A to B, On His Own’s chance was automatically compromised by Lord Windermere taking him sideways. And the stewards recognised this. They decided interference had taken place, and that Russell had ridden carelessly. They even gave him a one day ban for it. There was only a short-head in it, a margin significantly more minimal than the interference. On His Own was closing the winner down in the final strides.

It is a fundamental problem within the stewarding system how logic can get skewed to such an extent that despite everything Lord Windermere still got the benefit of the doubt?

It’s not as if Russell played a blinder in the enquiry. If anything David Casey was much the more convincing of the two, maybe because he had right on his side. But it is actually irrelevant what the jockeys said. It is also irrelevant that Russell believed he was on the best horse. It should be irrelevant that it was the most high-profile race of the season. But the only conclusion to come to in the circumstances is that that was much too relevant.

Wylie and Mullins have been praised for their sportsmanship and it is their prerogative not to continue the matter, although it could be argued they would be doing racing in general a favour by an appeal which would serve to highlight how so much stewarding in Britain and Ireland comes down to too much individual interpretation of a too imprecise rulebook.

Unfortunately the book and the system that can contort itself into justifying this Gold Cup decision is the same one that permitted the absurdity of last year’s Falmouth Stakes when Elusive Katie carried Sky Lantern across the track at Newmarket and held on to it on the day, and on a subsequent appeal.

Maybe Wylie and Mullins are right not to appeal. What’s the point? We’ve been here before and nothing has changed to a system that’s clearly not fit-for-purpose.

Some sharp-eyed TV observers on the day immediately noted Russell’s expression on pulling up which was far from the joyous one to be expected after just winning the ultimate prize. After riding a race of supreme subtlety and horsemanship the idea of having it taken away must have been galling. But it should have been taken away.

That was some final day for Russell, with only Paul Nicholls in the County preventing a clean-sweep for the visitors overall. Gigginstown’s four winners rightly got plenty attention. But could it have been even better?

Last Instalment was inevitably the focus of attention going into the Gold Cup, so much so that First Lieutenant’s absence for reportedly being off his feed got pretty much overlooked.

It’s hindsight of course, and hypothetical, but in the conditions it’s hard to picture a 100 per cent First Lieutenant not being involved in a Gold Cup finish that saw both Lord Windermere and On His Own fighting it out. First Lieutenant was well clear of Lord Windermere in both the Hennessy and the Lexus and while definitive conclusions are impossible, it’s no biggie to make a case for Mouse Morris’s being right in the mix on ground he would have liked and on a track over which he is proven.

But that’s the vagaries of appetite for you.

Finally, the vagaries of jump racing were illustrated by how the best horse on show for the entire week could finish only third. The New One is clearly an outstanding talent based on his third in the Champion Hurdle.

The ride of the week has to be Barry Geraghty’s masterclass on Jezki. The echoes of Punjabi were unmistakable. Everything had to be right for the horse to win, and it was.

Embarrassment of the week was the shameless opportunism involved in building a story on Ruby Walsh’s comments about different priorities between animal and human after Our Conor’s fall. Subsequent stories built on disgusting social media comments about Walsh only confirmed how technical advancements are not automatically improvements.

It might be hopelessly old-fashioned to point out how the voices of such cranks used to be rightly ignored. But that doesn’t make it wrong.